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Interview with Brad Feld, Managing Director, Foundry Group

Brad Feld, Founder, Foundry Group
"The best board members "work for the CEO as long as they support the CEO." If they don't support her, they should do something (which could mean changing the CEO, or working hard with her to get back to a place of support). For me - that's the fundamental "trick" to being an effective board member"

Bio

Brad has been an early stage investor and entrepreneur since 1987. Prior to co-founding Foundry Group, he co-founded Mobius Venture Capital and, prior to that, founded Intensity Ventures. Brad is also a co-founder of Techstars.

Brad is a writer and speaker on the topics of venture capital investing and entrepreneurship. He’s written a number of books as part of the Startup Revolution series and writes the blogs Feld Thoughts and Venture Deals.

Brad holds Bachelor of Science and Master of Science degrees in Management Science from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Brad is also an art collector and long-distance runner. He has completed 25 marathons as part of his mission to finish a marathon in each of the 50 states. 

Interview

Portfolio ventures that are going great need almost no support, and the ones that are in the bottom aren’t worth helping. Apart from the two extremes, how do you know how much effort, time, persistent to put in the ones that are somewhere in the middle?

I don’t necessarily agree with the premise on this one. It assumes that something that is going great will never run into trouble and something that is in trouble can never turn around.

How do you balance your time between (1) sourcing quality prospect ventures (2) doing due diligence for prospective investments and (3) helping current entrepreneurs? Which of these are you comfortable outsourcing to principals/analysts and which do you absolutely have to do yourself?

I spent most of my time on #3. As a firm, we’ve tried to set up our world so we don’t have to spend a lot of time on sourcing, as we have much more deal flow than we could ever invest in. We do spend focused time on selecting new companies to invest in, but try to allocation the majority of our time to working with our existing investments. We don’t have principals/analysts, so we’ve made a conscious decision not to outsource this activity to them.

It’s a lot easier to raise capital when you are one of the top venture funds, as Foundry Group certainly is. When you’re one of the “lesser” VCs that have to fight on two simultaneous fronts (1. fighting for quality startup dealflow and 2. fighting to raise money from LPs), how can an up-and-coming VCs set themselves apart from the crowd?

Be yourself, determine a clear strategy, and play a long-term game. If you have a clear strategy for what you are going to invest in, how you are going to find and attract these companies, and why they are going to want you as an investor, and you put real energy into this, the deal flow will take care of itself. And, if you generate returns and execute a consistent strategy over a long period of time, you will attract new investors.

Related to the previous: when raising money from LPs, what is the thing you emphasize the most when “selling” the fund? Past returns? Team expertise (domain and/or entrepreneurial expertise)? Unique angle?

Yes. It’s all of these.

Many GPs are good investors but don’t master one of the core skills – adding value as a board member. What do you think are some tricks to a productive relationship with founders?

What should the culture be for the board and CEO for a quality relationship? It’s extremely difficult to be an exception board member, which is separate from being an exceptional investor. I wrote a bunch about this in my book Startup Boards: Getting the Most Out of Your Board of Directors, but a common mistake is for the entrepreneur to view “the board” as the entity.

Instead, the entrepreneur should think of the individuals on the board, work hard to construct an effective board, and then work collectively with the board members over time, with clear communication, about what can be helpful to the company. The best board members “work for the CEO as long as they support the CEO.” If they don’t support her, they should do something (which could mean changing the CEO, or working hard with her to get back to a place of support). For me – that’s the fundamental “trick” to being an effective board member.

How do you solve important conflicts with CEOs, such as lack of alignment on exits, strategy, or just the CEO being in denial about things like performance? Does the resolution begin with a private conversation or with involving other board members in a decision?

Direct conversations that are bi-directional and as intellectually clear as possible. Emotion always seeps in and as conversations evolve, perspectives evolve with them. But starting from a place of openness, directness, and bi-directional conversation is key. 

Key Lessons from Brad

  • With quality dealflow, spend most of your time on support existing ventures. For a firm like Foundry Group, with abundant quality dealflow, Brad decides to spend the majority of his time supporting their portfolio ventures. And doing it personally, not outsourcing anything;
  • To attract capital, have a clear strategy and play a long-term game. The best GPs have a clear strategy for what they will invest in and execute on it consistently. If you have this, dealflow will come and so will investors;
  • Great board members “Work for the CEO as long as they support the CEO”. It’s binary. The moment a board doesn’t support the CEO anymore, they should either replace them or find a way to go back to supporting them;

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